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Should we re-think our criticism when it comes to fringe theatre?
It is justifiable to say that PIGDOG’s production of Karagula, the new play by enfant terrible Philip Ridley, is chaotic, unpolished and confusing. Yet is that the most valuable observation to make?
The play comes with all the trappings of the modern immersive theatrical experience. Ticket-holders are asked to come to a secret location, revealed to be The Styx, a bar two minutes’ walk from Tottenham Hale station. The theatre company, PIDDOG, are billed as “form-bending”. Arguably, the glossy sheen that we demand from theatre produced in the nations’ capital may need to be traded for less polished, more ambitious theatre if we are going to allow for creative growth and exploration.
The bravery of even staging Karagula should be recognised. Audiences and critics should reposition themselves and how they give value to theatre when watching a production like this. Because, despite all its flaws (of which there are many), this piece of theatre does achieve some fundamentally brilliant things and they should not be ignored.
We can call this the silver lining. Which means, of course, that we must first acknowledge the looming, eruptive grey cloud.
The cloud is this. While, on the surface, Ridley and PIDGOG might seem the perfect fit – both gritty provocateurs who love to twist narratives – Karagula in fact marks Ridley’s weakest narrative offering to date – a swirl of colours that rinse off with ease.
The play begins with the sugary-sweet relationship of two high school sweethearts, Dean and Libby. They exist in a world plastered in pink, like a heightened version of 1950s America. Their society is called Mareka and it can be summarised by the flurry of milkshakes, cardigans and kitsch jargon that populate that stage.
Dean is about to be made Prom King: a title that guarantees his untimely end. In Mareka, a regular ritual takes place where the Prom King is shot during the crowning parade. The assassin is then hunted down by an angry mob of townsfolk who subsequently trade their stories as glorious heroic achievements. There is even a prom museum where tokens of the annual slaughter are held.
Existing somewhere alongside Mareka, is COTNA, where people are referred to as numbers and are dressed head to toe in white. Though there is a steady undercurrent of violence that populates Mareka, COTNA appears as the more openly oppressive and mechanical. This world comes under threat when twins who can communicate telepathically are brought into the muted realm and have the potential to undo its structure.
Yes, Karagula is indigestible.
Philip Ridley’s script is like a tangled web of weeds, which in its current state only hosts a few blooming flowers. The script is in serious need of a dramaturg to strip back some of the ideas and impose a clear dramatic structure. The production feels as though someone had compressed an already bloated five-book series into a three-hour-long production.
Given that the universe Ridley has created is so unique, it’s then quite troubling that many of the scenes feel repetitive, displaying little care for storytelling. The audience are asked to go on a wild journey into an undiscovered realm and then are quickly robbed of a map. Navigating this lost universe is a task that one can quickly grow bored with.
So what’s the silver lining?
There is something in what PIGDOG and Soho Theatre attempted to achieve which is truly exciting. Not frightened by Ridley’s expansive script, which includes a mammoth 70 characters, the creative team decided to put on this play on a small budget and in a north London area that, culturally, has been relatively poorly served. For anyone seeking a more theatrical production on the fringe (which is growing rarer and rarer), there may be something in this play for you.
A huge success of Karagula is the casting. The diverse, dedicated actors should be applauded for their diligent performances in a production that is obviously too daring to be truly carried off at this stage. Aside from this, the quality of the performances are very high. Lanre Malaolu, Theo Solomon and Obi Abili in particular displayed absolute commitment. In the clearer, more dramatically satisfying scenes, the pulse of humanity was strong and created enough of a flicker that audiences were able to stay tapped into the production. The cast is diverse in age and race and it feels as though the eclectic company really bands together, which is a joy to watch. In addition, Max Barton, PIGDOG’s director, has a very competent skill in bringing drama to the surface against unfamiliar backdrops.
Shaun Soh’s costume designs are beautiful, and it feels as though there is a nod to The Fifth Element, with Soh conjuring a Jean Paul Gaultier-esc aesthetic. If Soh had been awarded a Hollywood-style budget, his designs could compete with some of the most creative textile minds. Sadly, at present the lack of cash really makes the final product’s lack of finish unavoidable.
At the heart of this production are some very talented creative people who are not afraid of exploring. The production brims with curiosity and life and is potentially one of the least predictable plays stages in years. Karagula is a bold effort with a strong current of imagination and ambition – but this is undermined by its lack of focus, clarity of vision and the budget to truly pull it of. Regardless of all the fraying edges and loose threads that plague the garments and the entire production, I hope that companies like this keep taking these sorts of risks. Otherwise we are at risk of existing within boundaries that are too safe and set. We should be looking at more fluid ways of bringing theatre to new spaces, new audiences and filling it with new faces.
Karagula continues at The Styx until Sat July 9. Tickets are available through the Soho Theatre.